Inside Mitahato, the Kenyan village where residents speak French

By Kelvin Ogome in Nairobi - RFI
Kenya  Kelvin Ogome
MAR 4, 2024 LISTEN
© Kelvin Ogome

In Mitahato, a small village in rural Kenya, it's common to see words like bienvenue adorning entrances, and to hear people saying bonjour or comment ça va as they pass each other along the leafy pathways. This regional community north of Nairobi prides itself on having become the country's first French-speaking village.

After learning French while working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, senior UN human rights advisor Chris Mburu was inspired to open a library and learning centre in his Kenyan hometown. 

Since then the French language has spread, with people of all ages gathering regularly at Mburu's centre – dubbed the "Mitahato French Village" – to learn French in the local dialect, Gikuyu.

"Mitahato has astounded Kenyans and foreigners alike by embracing French, a language that very few people in Kenya are willing to learn, let alone speak," the centre's website says.

Knight's award

Last year Mburu was awarded the Chevalier medal, a prestigious award from the French government for his efforts in spreading French.

France's ambassador to Kenya, Arnaud Suquet, confirmed the embassy's support of the centre connecting Kenya and France through language and culture.

Suquet said Mburu came from "humble beginnings", and that after holding a senior diplomatic job at the UN he had returned to "give back to his community".

People from around the world visit Mitahato's French resource centre to learn about the community and to exchange about French knowledge and culture with the locals.

The villagers, meanwhile, are eager to keep up with their French and to be able to effectively communicate with French-speaking visitors.

"Mitahato is indeed a francophone village and we will continue to partner to bring the French language even closer to the people," Suquet said.

Grandparents welcome 

French teacher Solomon Chege's class is made up of pupils of all ages with a common goal: to learn French.

"We have more than 100 students," Chege told RFI, adding they were continuously growing because of the free classes on offer. 

Sixty-year-old Jane Njeri attends the same class with her granddaughter Margret Wanjiru. Meanwhile a mother and daughter have sat side by side learning the language ever since the centre was inaugurated in 2020. 

"People used to wonder what a shosho (grandmother) was doing in a class full of kids," says Njeri.

"We are enjoying an opportunity we never had in our childhood. I am happy because my mind is engaged, I am happier because I can talk to visitors in a new language.''

Unlike fellow villagers learning French for personal reasons, Joseph Kanyara, an electrical engineering graduate from the Technical University of Kenya, has bigger ambitions.

"I want to advance my studies in engineering in France. I want to go there when I've mastered the language ... currently I'm at level two,'' he says.